Sunday, April 27, 2008
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Professor Smith: Today we begin with Darwin's theory of evolution, which is the foundation of all modern biology. Darwin postulated that the diversity of life can be explained by small variations (what we now call mutations) and natural selection.
Offspring will generally not be precisely like their parents. Some of these small variations will make it more likely that the plant or animal will survive and leave more offspring. Thus, bit by bit, plants and animals become more complex and more diverse. This mechanism is now almost universally accepted as the primary mechanism that explains the history of life on our planet.
Ben Stein: Excuse me Professor, I have a question: "Assuming it all did happen by Random Mutation and Natural Selection, where did the laws of gravity come from?"
Professor: I'm sorry Ben, perhaps you weren't paying attention. Evolution by natural selection is only an explanation of the origin of biological diversity; it has absolutely nothing to do with gravity. For that you can go talk to the physicists or cosmologists; it has absolutely nothing to do with mutation, selection, Darwin, or biology.
Ben: "Where did the laws of thermodynamics come from?" I mean, that question "just sort of blows the whole theory of Random Mutation out of the water," doesn't it?
Professor: Excuse me? The theory of evolution by random mutation and natural selection has absolutely nothing to do with explaining where the laws of thermodynamics come from. You can go talk to people working in statistical mechanics if you want an answer to that. Why on earth would you think that a theory of biology would have anything to say about the origin of heat?
Ben: So you're saying that "Evolutionism, as taught by Darwinism, has nothing - nothing - to say about how life originated. Has nothing to say about how the governing principles in the universe - gravity, thermodynamics, motion, fluid motion - how any of those originated. It's...it's got some gigantic missing pieces."
Professor: Of course there are more pieces! It's a theory of biology; it explains how, given a population of simple living things, that population could develop into extremely diverse populations of more complicated living things. It doesn't pretend to say anything about gravity, thermodynamics, mechanics, fluid dynamics, chemistry, astronomy. . . Nor does it say anything about why my car wouldn't start this morning, or about whether it's going to rain next Tuesday, or about who is going to win American Idol, or about what's being served for dinner in the cafeteria! It's about biology!
An extract from this made it up on Expelled Exposed. I'll polish up this extended version someday with the references below.
Saturday, April 12, 2008
First is a site devoted to the Expelled movie. You can find a growing list of resources at Expelled Exposed; they're working hard to correct all the lies in Expelled. (And a link for Luboš Motl, just because he deserves it.)
A beautiful, concise knock-down argument explaining that Stein et al. were expelled for plagiarism. (Background info at, e.g., Erv's blog, and at Pharyngula.)
Next link is to Cuttlefish the talented mollusk with a taste for poetry -- his blog is Digital Cuttlefish.
Oh, and Raven has a very useful list to compare with the Expelled claim. If you're curious about the central message of the movie, the following pretty much says all you need to know (source).
And this definitely deserves a link: David Marjanovic's glorious smackdown of a creationist's nonsense. And Deacon Duncan discovers the root of all evil (it ain't what you thought).
And a link to the Great Inversion (as well as dino feathers).
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Dear Dr. Nisbet,
With the benefit of hindsight, I thought we might try to learn a lesson from your recent exchange with Dr. Myers. I think your message had some valuable content, but (I'm sorry about irony -- no sarcasm intended) that message could have been better framed.
I'm not interested in criticizing, but I think it is worth exploring what alternative frames might have been used. Here's one suggestion for how your message might look if framed differently:
Title: PZ Frames the Expellers!
The recent accounts of PZ's ironic expulsion from a showing of Expelled (a showing he was legitimately signed up for) reveal the frame that the movie is trying to set to undermine evolution. Their goal is to portray evolutionary biologists as intrinsically and irrationally opposed to all religion: to convince the public that scientists are actively trying to convert students to atheism in the science classroom.
This is presumably part of the reason that they set their sights on PZ and Dawkins, who are prominent atheists as well as being biologists, and lied to them to get interviews for their movie. It worries me that having PZ and Dawkins in the limelight during the debate over Expelled will help Stein, Mathis, et al. push forward their frame. I'd prefer it if Francis Ayala or Ken Miller could be in the spotlight (together with the National Center for Science Education, AAAS, and the National Academies), since this would more effectively undermine the film's intended message that much of current science is really atheism in disguise.
But if the current fiasco by the Expelled folks is any indication, maybe I shouldn't worry. They're going to have trouble shaking the frame that they (and anyone associated with them) are a pathetic bunch of dishonest buffoons who deserve no trust whatsoever. PZ and Dawkins are doing a great job right now of pushing the "Science = Honesty & Truth, and Creationism = Lies & Stupidity" frame.
Let me point to some of the advantages of this frame:
1. While it cautions PZ (and Dawkins) that the "science leads to atheism" theme is a message that is counterproductive in this fight, it packages it in a palatable way: You aren't setting up a conflict between yourself and PZ, instead you're on PZ's side against a common enemy: Stein and Mathis. You're not saying that he should watch his mouth because you say so, or because if he doesn't then he doesn't really "care about promoting public trust in science and science education." Instead you're just pointing out the attack of your common enemy (while opposing that attack with your comrade PZ), in a way that makes your point about the most effective way to counter that attack.
2. It doesn't presume to place yourself above someone who is already up to his waist in the battle, and who was sucked into that battle against his will by the dishonesty of the Expelled folks. PZ really can't lie low (even if he wanted to, which he doesn't) because he's in the movie. The new frame doesn't present you as lecturing someone who (many think) is extremely successful in countering creationist nonsense and promoting science.
3. It promotes the message that the creationists are idiots and have lost a major battle. This episode is (or at least might be) a huge opportunity to show the public what stupid liars the Expelled crew are. You worry that the publicity could help the film succeed, but there is absolutely no opportunity now to prevent such publicity. What you can do is help prevent their PR folks from putting a positive spin on the episode. They really screwed up in a huge way (imagine how much you'd be sweating if you were in their shoes), and they know it -- they're in big-time damage control mode. Now is not the time to divert that message by attacking the heros of the story.
4. The new frame doesn't compare scientists who have devoted their life to discovering and communicating the truth about the world with politicians whose words are to be judged only by popularity. Indeed, the earlier comparison is made all the more insulting by the suggestion that these politicians are morally superior to the truth-speaking scientist. And again, it avoids the frame of "if you were as intelligent as I am, you'd know that you should shut up and let me and other smart (or at least non-selfish) people do the talking." That's a frame that most people don't like.
5. It focuses on the positive rather than the negative. It praises PZ for his successes, and tries to push him in a desired direction; it doesn't say that his actions are "Really, Really Bad for Science." How do you feel when someone tells you that what you're doing is really really bad for your chosen cause? (Note that many people above actually hold this opinion. Is it productive?)
6. It tries to offer some constructive advice on framing. It suggests a frame that might help the common cause of science education. It avoids slipping into the "be quiet and don't speak your mind" frame (it is a theme of Expelled that this frame dominates science). You can express your wish that others be the spokespersons without suggesting that PZ (& Dawkins) should refuse to grant interviews or speak their minds when asked direct questions. You might suggest some messages for them to try to communicate in interviews (carefully framing your suggestions so that it doesn't seem like you're lecturing your seniors), such as the message that many scientists are theists, that in the movie they were speaking of their own personal histories, that science itself is neutral on many religious issues, that scientists have a very strong sense of ethics -- especially when it comes to issues like honesty, and that Expelled is thoroughly dishonest . . .
Saturday, February 16, 2008
"Assuming it all did happen by Random Mutation and Natural Selection, where did the laws of gravity come from?"This prize-winning absurdity is offered by Ben Stein in a telephone press conference staged by the producers of Expelled (a forthcoming pro-creation anti-science movie starring Stein). It's quoted in a very nice article by Dan Whipple that discusses the ironic fact that this "press conference" refused to field questions from journalists. The irony is compounded by the fact that the central complaint of Expelled is that free speech is (they claim) being stifled by the pro-evolution forces in academia. It is only too obvious that the creationists aren't interested in an honest and fair exchange of ideas; actual informed discussion invariably leaves their so-called arguments in tatters.
But let's get back to the quotation. I'm sure the complete, mind-numbing stupidity of the question is obvious to most readers, but I'll point it out just in case: The theory of evolution by natural selection is a biological account that has nothing whatsoever to do with explaining gravity! The very concept of evolution requires replication; it results in novel organisms and a variety of species -- it has nothing to do with explaining physical laws!
It might be helpful to quickly indicate four separate issues that creationists too often fail to distinguish. The following are distinct issues:
1. The origin of species. Given that there exists a population of replicating organisms in an environment, how do we end up with different species whose members have quite different traits? This is the question that Darwin offered an excellent answer to, and modern biology has fleshed out his tentative account in an extremely impressive way. This is what evolution is all about: biology.
2. Abiogenesis. The origin of life. How did the first replicators, the first organisms, come into being? This is a question for which we do not yet have a very good answer (though we can say a fair bit with confidence). But this question is irrelevant to the biological theory of evolution; it is a question about the border of chemistry, biology, and geology (& potentially theology -- though this is unlikely).
3. The cosmological evolution of the universe going back to the big bang. How did the Earth get here, in its orbit around a sun? This question has nothing to do with biological evolution.
4. The Grand Ontological Dilemma (G.O.D.): Why is there something rather than nothing? This is the province of philosophy. fundamental physics, and (perhaps) theology. Here we face the question of whether we should suppose that there was a "cause" of the Big Bang, or of the laws of physics, of the universe itself. Once again, this has nothing to do with biological evolution.
Stein is faulting the biological science of evolution for failing to answer question number 4! This is beyond foolishness, it is utter moronic stupidity! Random mutation and natural selection have absolutely nothing to do with explaining gravity!!!
Stein's challenge (which he claims "is overwhelming, and just sort of blows the whole theory of Random Mutation out of the water") is like someone rejecting a detailed explanation of how a car engine functions because it doesn't explain atomic structure. "Assuming it all happens by gasoline burning in cylinders and pushing pistons, where does the rigidity of iron come from?"
Actually, Stein's question is even stupider because at least the properties of iron are relevant to automobile locomotion. Stein's question is, "If it's all gas and pistons, why is there gravity?" Stupid, stupid, stupid. There's nothing else to say.